Rowan Smith: Dead Centre
From July 11 till August 25, 2018, WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery, Cape Town will present Dead Centre, an exhibition of recent work by contemporary South African artist Rowan Smith.
With this latest body of work, Smith executes a number of strategies intended to exoticise the idea of whiteness in contemporary South Africa, removing the veil that allows it to persist as normative and unseen. To this end, the exhibition’s central motif is Smith’s custom variation of the ‘Soldier 2000’ military camouflage pattern adopted by the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) since 1994. Replacing the earthy brown tones with white and grayscale camouflage patterning, the modified print serves as an explicit statement about the normative status and privilege that enables whiteness to exist as an invisible, unraced skin.
The print is applied to tents, floppy sun hats, a flag bearing the phrase ‘Forget the West’, over-sized bean bags, and air travel suitcases. The culmination of this is a campsite installation, which, in its arrangement of tents, makeshift fireplaces and rock formations, resembles a leisure campsite (‘getting away from it all’), a military camp (possibly referencing reactionary doomsday preppers), or even a riff on the idea of ‘settlers’ in relation to colonialist/imperialist expansion.
Through the overt fabrication of many elements within the installation (the recurring use of ‘swimming pool blue’, the faux rock features which are a staple of poolside décor), there is a questioning of the politics of leisure and excess, and to whom these privileges are afforded. For Smith, meaning is embedded by meticulously rendering his work in loaded materials such as African Mahogany, camouflage fabric and the fibreglass resin used to construct swimming pools and their accompanying rock features.
Dead Centre is a consolidation of a number of threads and motifs which have permeated Smith’s work at different times during his career. His iconography – including beehives, speaker stacks, scrap yards and litter – offers points of access into diverse inquiries such as analysing the South African postcolonial state; the politics of monuments; the impermanence and deterioration of power; ideological collapse; identity-formation in the nation-state; ideas of technology and obsolescence; entropic images of destruction; and bourgeois kitsch.
Acknowledging his complicity in the structures under critique as a white South African male, Smith frequently adopts a wry sensibility which informs many of these new sculptures: a replica European universal travel adaptor (The Visitor), the fluorescent gemsbok horns of Africa Hi-Tech, and a series of comically overstuffed refuse bags, seemingly destined for the trash can of ideology.
The themes and concerns of the exhibition are consolidated with a publication of accompanying texts from Nick Mulgrew and Zinaid Meeran. Arising out of conversations surrounding the exhibition, these texts are autonomous entities, unconcerned with explaining the exhibition or directly unpacking the artworks. Rather, they operate as sounding boards, serving to add additional layers of meaning and spaces of reflection to the discourse of Rowan Smith’s work.
Ultimately, as suggested by the exhibition’s title, the overarching aim is to relegate the idea of whiteness as a ‘transcendental norm’ (to use a term by American philosopher and race theorist George Yancy[i]) around which markers of difference are orientated in neo-colonial and/or decolonial South Africa as one that is exhausted and spent, a dead centre. In so doing, Smith highlights it as the specific target of critique (the dead centre, ‘bull’s-eye’) in order to render it as hyper-visible.
Rowan Smith’s work takes the form of a multidisciplinary semiotic investigation into the ways in which cultural signs and signifiers can be read as artefacts. He examines how the meaning embedded in these artefacts fluctuates (and frequently deteriorates) in relation to ever-shifting sociopolitical contexts; often assuming a self-critical position which responds to his locality. Most recently, Smith has focussed this lens on the complexities and contradictions of post-apartheid South Africa in terms of class, capitalist economy, nationalism, globalisation and the relationship between the pervasive legacy of the past and the undefined present. He examines these concepts through acts of appropriation, defacement, destruction and reparation. By visualising the destruction of a society in this way, he intends to highlight the flaws embedded in its underlying structures that they may be acknowledged and confronted. Crucially, the physical materiality of the works is as important to his investigation as the concepts informing them; the two work in tandem in order to extrapolate the themes inherent to the artwork.
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